7 for 6: Can We Go Back to January?

This Week on 7 for 6: Embiid goes toe-to-toe with James Harden, Saric drops some dimes, and recapping the best month of Sixers basketball in a long time.

1: Embiid Snubbed from All-Star Game

Even as he continues to run away with Rookie of the Year Joel Embiid was not named a member of the Eastern Conference All Star Team this season. On the year Embiid is averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game.

Embiid missed out on being a starter, and on Thursday he was left off the reserves as well. The reserves consisted of Isaiah Thomas (Boston), Kyle Lowry (Toronto), Kemba Walker (Charlotte), Paul George (Indiana), Kevin Love (Cleveland), Paul Milsap (Atlanta) and John Wall (Washignton). Embiid has a case over a few players, mostly Milsap and George. Milsap is putting up slightly less comparable numbers on a playoff team and George, while scoring more looks more like a wing to balance out the roster.

But it is understandable why Embiid was left off the roster. It’s not just about fan votes anymore; players and media members each accounted for 25% of the vote this year. What likely held Embiid back this time is his limited minutes and the fact that the Sixers are still below .500, despite their progress in the standings.

It’s disappointing that Embiid won’t be able to play in the game, but there’s a chance that he could participate in other weekend festivities. He wants to be in the Three Point Contest. Embiid would be the first center to ever participate.

2: In Response to the Snub, One of Embiid’s best games

One day after being snubbed from the All Star team, Embiid took the National Stage in a game against Houston. And he showed the world what it would be missing at this year’s All Star game. Embiid dropped 32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks on 11/20 shooting (4/6 from 3). And he did that in just over 28 minutes of playing time.

It was arguable Embiid’s most complete game of the season. He showed his soft shooting touch, explosive bounce of the dribble, and seemed to trade blows all night with James Harden.

On most nights, Embiid’s performance would have been enough for a victory. But most nights aren’t spent against James Harden.

3: Oh Yeah, James Harden

It should not surprise you to read that James Harden is really good at basketball. He’s a top 3 MVP candidate this season putting up the best numbers of his career (and that’s saying something). But he absolutely torched the Sixers. Harden cooked up 52 points, 13 rebounds, and 13 assists. (And frankly this shouldn’t surprise you either. He averages 27 points against Philly, 2nd most against any opponent).

Now look, Harden is great and deserves plenty of credit for the Rockets winning this game. Sometimes it’s impossible to stop some players when they’re on their game. But the Sixers had the league’s third best defensive rating in January and entered the Houston game playing the best they had all year. It’s just frustrating to watch them get burned because if they are able to at least slow Harden down some, they might have won the game.

All in all, it underscores how badly this team needs perimeter defenders. TJ McConnell certainly tries, but he’s physically outclassed on many nights. Robert Covington is versatile and solid in his own right, but he’s not someone you always want on guards. Until the Sixers acquire someone, be it through a trade or draft pick, who can be a defensive stopper, players like Harden will be eager to play against the Sixers.

4: Embiid Sidelined (Again)

It wasn’t all great news for Embiid this past week. In the Jan 13. game against Charlotte, Embiid hurt his right knee. He sat out the three games leading up to the game against Houston. Embiid then missed the next contest against Chicago. Shortly after that, the team announced that Embiid would miss the next three games. It doesn’t appear to be a serious injury, but like always the Sixers are erring on the side of caution.

“This is just part of this year, managing our guys, there’s no red flags here,” Brown told reporters. “It’s just us going overboard making sure we’re doing the right thing with what we’re all learning to be a very important person in our program.”

Obviously we’d like to see Embiid on the court, but the Sixers have actually manage well in his latest absences. The picked up two wins last week without him, against the L.A. Clippers (without Chris Paul but in Blake Griffin’s first game back) and the Milwaukee Bucks. Without Embiid, it meant more minutes for Nerlens Noel and surprisingly, Richaun Holmes. Holmes posted 18 points off the bench against the Clippers, then nearly picked up a double-double (9 pts, 8 rebs) against the Bucks. Noel stuffed the box score with the following lines:

vs. LAC: 19 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals.

@ MIL: 16 points, 13 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block

As this season moves on, players are starting to settle into their roles. It wasn’t a smooth beginning to this log jam at center, but Noel and Holmes have embraced their roles off the bench and are excelling within them. The same can’t always be said for Jahlil Okafor, but it’s good to have some stability on the bench.

5: Saric has his best game to date

With Joel Embiid drawing so much attention, it’s easy to forget about Dario Saric. While Embiid runs away with the title of best rookie, Saric has arguably been the second best rookie behind him. He is second in points and rebounds among rookies, and is fifth in minutes played. Things didn’t start out smoothly for Saric, however. He began this year as a starter, but he was plagued with efficiency problems. Since moving to the bench, he’s improved his game across the board. And this week’s win against the Kings felt like a culmination of Saric’s improvement.

He posted 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists on 8/11 shooting. Saric was totally engaged in the game; patient with his shot selection and he finally showed off his passing ability in style.

The scoring and rebounding isn’t unusual. Those are areas in which Saric has excelled this year. But the passing is new, and boy is it something to behold. It’s taken Saric over 40 games to fully adjust to the speed on the NBA, but seeing him pull of passes like these suggest that the game is finally slowing down for him, so to speak. He’s seeing passing lanes and openings that he couldn’t before without experience. If he’s able to pass like this consistently, it will dramatically open up Saric’s game and provide an excellent playmaking presence off the bench.

6: Chaisson Randle

One piece of news that flew under the radar this past week was the signing of 23 year old Chasson Randle to a 3 year contract. Randle, a 6’2″ guard who was playing on 10 day contracts, has scored 24 points in five games, averaging 4.8 per contest coming off the bench.

Randle played college at Stanford where he was the school’s leading scorer at the time of his graduation. Before signing in Philadelphia he had staretd playing with the New York Knicks’ D-League Affiliate this year. His future in Philadelphia is somewhat uncertain at this stage. Randle can shoot, but that’s about the only area where he is proficient at an NBA level. He’ll have to put a lot of work in an patiently wait for opportunities to crack the lineup.

7: The Best Month in a Long Time

February is here; that means some things are right around the corner like Valentines Day, The NBA All Star Game, and maybe even some warm weather. That’s all well and good, but as we move towards the spring, the Sixers might prefer to stay in the cold of January.

The team went 10-5 in January, matching their win total from last season in just one month. It was also the team’s first winning month since 2012. Over that span of time, the team ranked third league-wide in defensive rating, first in assist percentage, third in steals per game, and fourth in blocks per game. It was a great month from top to bottom, and a lot of players went into making that possible. And with such a young team, seeing success like this is a great chance for them to learn and grow.

“We’re holding each other accountable,” Robert Covington said. “[That’s] the main thing — we’re getting on guys and we’re realizing mistakes of our own without Coach having to tell us. We’re not getting discouraged if teams make a run. We go out and fix the problem so we can learn it ourselves — that’s part of the growth of this team.”

Learning to win is a process. While in year’s past they’ve been able to win on occasion, they were never able to do it consistently. This month, they finally strung some wins together. Progress is incremental. I want to see how this team is able to respond with heightened expectations. Was all of this winning just a matter of league-wide fatigue before the All Star festivities? Or did the Sixers really improve this much? And how will the All Star break affect their play?

None of these questions are clear right now. You would hope that this month doesn’t last as their best all season, but it’s hard to imagine them playing any better (especially after the past three years). They’ve put themselves within shouting distance of a playoff spot, so they certainly have something to play for. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that.

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